Standing Rock, Flint, and the Color of Water

Co-authored with Ameer Loggins
Members of the Colorado River Tribes in solidarity with the Standing Rock tribe. Credit: Robyn Beck/Getty Images.

While much attention has rightly been paid to those who are courageously protecting water resources and sacred land on North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, few mainstream commentators have situated Standing Rock as part of a larger political struggle for self-determination and survival. Linking the politics surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline project to Flint, Michigan’s lead-poisoning crisis is critical for understanding how race and class informs presumed social risk, vulnerability to premature death, and access to democratic decision-making.

In the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Army Corps of Engineers Nationwide Permit No. 12 (NWP12) has fast-tracked construction—circumventing the democratic will of members of the Standing Rock Sioux community—by exempting the project from certain environmental inspections. Similarly, the application of Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law (EML) to Flint—a majority black city—authorized the state’s governor unilaterally to appoint unelected officials to make decisions about how and where to source cheap water for the municipality. This sourcing resulted in widespread lead poisoning.

Both NWP12 (a provision strongly supported by the oil industry and its lobbyists) and Michigan’s EML (legislation passed with bipartisan support) constitute policies that pervert the democratic process. Both serve the interests of wealthy white men and thwart the decision-making capacities of communities of color. These policies beg larger questions: What is the color of democracy? Who is presumed to be capable of self-governance? And which types of communities have the right to avoid public health risks and increased vulnerability to premature death?

Since March, thousands of tribal nations and non-indigenous allies from across the country have gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to protect land and water that could be destroyed and/or contaminated by the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline. Many members of the tribe oppose the pipeline’s construction near their reservation on the grounds that it threatens their public health and welfare, water supply, cultural resources, and sacred sites. If completed, the $3.7 billion pipeline fabricated by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners would span nearly 1,200 miles from North Dakota to Illinois and would transport at least 470,000 barrels of crude oil per day.

People participate in a national mile-long march in February to highlight the push for clean water in Flint, Mich. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
People participate in a national mile-long march in February to highlight the push for clean water in Flint, Mich. Credit: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have argued that under federal law the U.S. government should have consulted with them about the pipeline in the early stages of project development—and did not. Last July, the Standing Rock Sioux and the nonprofit Earthjustice sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in federal court, contending that the agency had wrongly approved the pipeline without reasonable consultation. The tribe has also argued that because the Dakota Access Pipeline would cross right under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe—the reservation’s main source of drinking water—a leak or oil spill could prove disastrous.

According to the National Institute of Health, safe drinking water is presently “unavailable in 13 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native homes on reservations, compared with 1 percent of the overall U.S. population.” Moreover, the tribe points out that the pipeline’s original path was supposed to go farther north, near Bismarck, but state and federal officials rejected that route out of concern that a leak might harm the state capital’s drinking water.

According to federal pipeline regulators the Bismarck route would have traversed land considered a “high consequence area,” a designation reserved for zones determined to have “the most significant adverse consequences in the event of a pipeline spill.”

This is significant for the following reason:

To be sure, the language of “high consequence areas,” serves as a politically vacuous euphemism for high consequence lives, people, and bodies. These raced and classed demographic realities beg the questions: Whose lives matter? Whose historic use of land and water matter? And whose health matters?

One could ask the same questions of Flint, Michigan.

Whereas members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe were not consulted in the initial stages of the Dakota Access Pipeline planning process, many citizens of Flint, Michigan—a majority-black city—were subjected to a lead-tainted water supply and stripped of their civic power, representative government, and legal recourse in an effort to save the city from financial default.

Residents of Flint, 57 percent of whom are black and 42 percent of whom live below the poverty line, were deprived of the basic right to govern their city from 2011-2015 by Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law (EML). The provision empowers the governor with the authority to appoint unelected officials to control any city determined to be in “fiscal crisis.” The emergency manager has the power to “renegotiate contracts, liquidate assets, suspend local government [and] unilaterally draft policy.”

In 2013, Flint residents filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Michigan’s EML on the basis that most appointments have come in cities in which most of the residents are people of color. A federal appeals court upheld the state’s EML in 2016 by arguing that citizens have “no fundamental right” to elect local government officials. The court also found that the law appeared to be applied with colorblind intentions and was “facially entirely neutral with respect to race.” The outcome of these policies, however, strongly suggest otherwise. In theory, emergency financial managers are supposed to assist municipalities based on a unbiased evaluation of their financial circumstances—but majority-white communities facing similar fiscal challenges have not been subject to the same levels of unwanted political imposition.

Ideologically, the EML law rests on the assumption that residents of predominantly- black cities are ill-equipped to manage their own local democracies, as six unelected managers have been assigned to govern Flint over the past 13 years. One should ask if the same in loco parentis form of governance would be applied to majority-white cities in Michigan with the same zeal? To date, Allen Park, Michigan seems to be the singular majority-white city in the state to have come under the supervision of an emergency manager.

A similar question could be posed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and political leaders in North Dakota’s capital of Bismarck: would an oil pipeline of great economic significance ever be allowed to traverse a local water source in a relatively affluent city that is 95 percent white?

Though it would be wrong to suggest that Standing Rock is the new Flint, the struggles over access to democratic decision-making power are strikingly similar, as is the raced and classed (in)ability to eschew exposure to environmental health-risks and vulnerability to premature death.

The political battles at Standing Rock and in Flint are not just about clean water. Rather, access to clean water serves as a powerful litmus test for evaluating access to full and non-negotiable democratic participation. The fight over the color of water—that is, its racialized policy antecedents—provides a deep challenge to the parameters and possibilities of self-determination and survival in a political space hostile to communities of color. The truth is that the very assumptions of social worth undergirding the decision to divert the Dakota Access Pipeline from Bismarck to Standing Rock are the very same assumptions that inform the decision to source Flint water from a polluted river.

Linking these battles over political recognition, entrance to democratic participation, and access to basic public goods such as clean drinking water brings into relief the necessity of coalition-building and the acknowledgment of shared interests. We must contest these race- and class-based injustices from Flint to Standing Rock and beyond.

Christopher Petrella is a Lecturer in American Cultural Studies at Bates College. His work explores the intersections of race, state, and criminalization. He completed a Ph.D. in African Diaspora Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. Follow him on Twitter @CFPetrella.

Ameer Loggins is a Ph.D. Candidate in African Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His work examines black representation in media. Follow him on Twitter @LeftSentThis.

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Christopher F. Petrella

Christopher Petrella is a Lecturer in American Cultural Studies at Bates College. His work explores the intersections of race, state, and criminalization. He completed a Ph.D. in African Diaspora Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. Follow him on Twitter @CFPetrella.

Comments on “Standing Rock, Flint, and the Color of Water

  • Avatar

    Please tel me why President Obama has not intervened in this ecological crisis. He should have done something MONTHS ago. He has no excuses!

    • Avatar

      because he knows whats going on there. he sees both sides rather than just the side you see

  • Avatar

    but they did try to work with them before. 12 times in fact and the tribe refused…

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